Why children are highly sensitive to stress and here’s how you can help.

Summer is on its way but so are the exams and tests which can be such a source of stress. SATs and GCSEs will be starting shortly and most schools annual reports now give far more assessment information than previously. Children are exposed to increasingly high expectations of what they should be able to do at each stage in their lives and the scrutiny of their achievements can be unrelenting. Although many adults thrive on this adrenaline-high lifestyle it takes its toll on our children who are far more vulnerable to stress.

Have you noticed how many children are far from happy?  A happy, healthy child is busy, energetic, and carefree.  In contrast many children now have intense episodes of panic, prolonged bouts of tearfulness, frequent nightmares, fears of being left alone and extreme temper tantrums. They can be grumpy, non-compliant and generally out of sorts. This is not normal for childhood and assuming it is immaturity or a sign of a child’s prickly personality can lead us to ignore tell-tale signs. Frequent signs of stress are a warning sign that all is not well. Some may say that modern kids are spoilt, have too many material goods and have become self-centred.  But there is another explanation: modern life is too stressful for children.  The reason why is linked to their hyper- sensitive reactions to stress.

Children have the most brilliant biological survival systems to protect them from danger. Their stress response is more sensitive to potential threat and more finely tuned than an adults.  This makes evolutionary sense because children are more vulnerable.  Nature protects children by making them ultra-aware of any potential threats or dangers.  The child’s body and brain are more designed to automatically detect possible dangers.  Immediately there is a surge of adrenaline and cortisol which is needed to create the flight or fight reaction.

However children cannot protect themselves, so they have to react powerfully to attract adult attention to get the protection they need. These automatic alarm systems are rather primitive, and can’t distinguish real danger from false.  They are designed to be fast rather than accurate.  They work by detecting either external signs of danger or by reading increased internal signs of stress from raised heart rate and breathing which has not been caused by exertion.  If your heart rate and breathing increase, so the brain reasons, there must be something going on.

For the 21st century child these internal stress reactions are triggered by being bombarded by noise, having too much to do or being rushed from place to place by an adult in hurry.  Raised expectations at school, too much homework and not enough time to play all raise stress levels.  All contribute to a speeded up life which increases heart rate and speeds up breathing which eventually results in meltdown. So what can we do?  Not everyone can, or wants to slow adult life down but children can’t take the pace so need your help. If the world keeps adding pressure to your life here are some of your options.

1) Build up the pleasure to pain ratio: Barbara Frederickson’s research from positive psychology has found a ratio of 3: 1 positive experiences is the tipping point for wellbeing.  It’s unrealistic to expect to sit back and let life give you 3 times the pleasure to pain but you can increase your ratio by creating good memories to draw on and by slowly and deliberately anticipating and savouring something special that is still in the future.  So when the present world is dull and routine you can revisit the past or imagine the future with equally good results for your wellbeing.  At the end of each day find 3 things you are grateful for and encourage children to do the same.


2) Find time to slow down: Children can benefit from as little as 5 minutes a day slowing down their breathing and heart rate to create a calm but alert state of mind.  More is better, but learning the skill will allow a child to repeat this for themselves when needed.  Yoga or other slow exercise which concentrates the mind works well as does slow breathing techniques (breathing in and out to a slow count of 4 from 5 to 10 times is also effective).  Some schools are experimenting with child-friendly forms of meditation which not only calm emotions but also improve concentration and learning.  A stressed child does not learn effectively as both concentration and memory are adversely affected by stress.

On the home front, a slow, warm bath and a bedtime story are also very calming and help promote deep sleep which is restorative.

3) Turn taking and sharing: Family occasions like shared mealtimes or playing board games encourages children to wait and listen to others. This is not only slows things down and creates calm, (with practice) but also helps our bodies to entrain to each other.  Entrainment is a biological process where we become in tune with others who we support and depend on. Heart rate and breathing tends to become similar allowing the adult to help he child become soothed and calmer more quickly and easily. Being in tune is less likely when we all do our own thing, and only meet up occasionally, despite being in the same house.  Being a part of a strong social group helps children feel safe and protected.


4) Create a Treasure Chest: Building memories to draw upon creates precious moments that can be savoured again and again.  Give your child a special box to collect photos, drawings, tickets from days out, postcards, small objects and anything else which will trigger intense pleasure when recalling a past event.  Look at these treasures together to recall happy times when your child needs their spirits lifted.


5) Plant Golden Seeds

Being under pressure and being judged for your achievements is a commonplace of modern childhood.  Childhood is no longer a time of innocence and freedom to explore and grow at your own pace.  Many children are now on a fast track timetable to accelerate achievement.  Sadly this often backfires.

Instead offer your child the gift of appreciation, to acknowledge who they are now, and to signal your belief in their potential.  Your observations and comments will show your appreciation which will fortify them through tough times.   A golden seed is true recognition from others which creates faith and optimism for the future.  Tell them what you see rather than what you wish for.

Lastly be alert to your child’s expression of the uncomfortable emotions of fear, anger and distress, they exist as a warning that all is not well.  These emotions can be triggered by a lifestyle which is not threatening or dangerous but is stressful or too fast and too busy.  Children run on slow time.  You don’t have to totally change your life but do try small steady changes.  Decide what the smallest thing is that you can start doing atoday that will create the biggest difference to your life.




About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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